As the overture plays, silhouettes dance across a large panel of intricately decorated windows before giving way to a jubilant ball in full swing. As the guests dance and drink, so too is the audience invited into the fast and hilarious world of “The Merry Widow.”
The Jacobs School of Music will present this opera with two casts at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22 and 23 at the Musical Arts Center.
“The Merry Widow” is a German operetta composed by Franz Lehár and follows a recently widowed woman as she attempts to fend off numerous suitors all vying for her affection and the enormous fortune left to her. At the center of the chaos is the Baron of Pontevedro trying to convince Count Danilo Danilovitsch to marry the widow to ensure her fortune stays in their poverty-stricken country.
IU senior Joshua DeGroot plays the Baron in one cast and said he enjoyed the chance to play a purely comedic character. The Baron, while a man in power, is totally oblivious about his much younger wife’s affair and his naivete was a strong comedic point for DeGroot.
[RELATED: ‘Poetry is Therapy’: a night at The Bishop Bar]
“It’s the best feeling ever— making other people laugh,” DeGroot said. “You don’t have to take it very seriously, you’re not trying to invoke serious emotion or get yourself into a certain headspace. You just get to be funny.”
While the libretto is translated from the original German, the songs are not — with translations being provided through projected subtitles above the stage. Drawing from his musical theater background as well as director Keturah Stickann’s movements, DeGroot emphasized physicality in his performance.
“It’s our job as the performer to go into it knowing that the audience probably won’t know what we’re singing so we have to show them what we’re singing,” DeGroot said. “You have to be overexaggerated in your movement to deliver.”
IU masters student Macey Rowland plays the titular merry widow, Hanna Glawari, in one cast. Rowland approached the character from a point of humanity, seeing her not just as a lucky woman who got rich, but a woman who was born poor and denied marriage to her love, Danilo, because of her low status at the time.
“She’s actually a very down-to-earth, loving, patriotic young woman who has been thrusted into this life of grandiose wealth and status,” Rowland said. “There’s this element of ‘fish out of water,’ but she’s good at playing her part.”
Not only finding heart in Hanna, Rowland also found the character’s strength and perseverance— not allowing herself to get fooled by the men clearly flirting with her only for her immense wealth. Traditionally in operas, the humor is sometimes at the expense of the female characters, however in “The Merry Widow,” the men make themselves into complete fools with little to show for it.
“The female character is put into this position of having a lot of wealth and status that is more traditionally male,” Rowland said. “She has all of this agency and power in the plot because of a very traditionally male power so it was definitely new for the time.”
Hanna’s former lover, Danilo, is played in one cast by IU masters student Chandler Benn. While Count Danilo is introduced to the audience as a comically drunken partier, Benn also saw more to the character than comedy — finding his personal growth with Hanna to be the heart of an otherwise incredibly comedic show.
[RELATED: Power of the pen]
“Building your character as this somewhat drunken, loveable guy makes the moments towards the end of the opera where he kind of shows his true emotion that much more meaningful,” Benn said.
In an opera written in the early 20th century, Benn found the production to persevere throughout the decades from its lighthearted humour, but also its core themes of true love surviving after so much time has passed.
“The tussle that Hanna and Danilo go through to get back to the ‘I truly love you’ is kind of what makes it timeless,” Benn said.